With Support From

What People Are Saying About That MLA Report on the Ph.D.

Well, what do you know? When the Modern Language Association releases a big report on how to remake the language-and-literature Ph.D., it provokes strong opinions. Lots of strong opinions.

By this point, you’ve probably read parts of the report itself. If so, you’re likely not surprised by urgency of the task force that put the document together. “We are faced,” the report states, “with an unsustainable reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around 60 percent of doctorate recipients.”

How to right the ship? The MLA’s proposals hit on a few key themes—cut the time it takes to get a degree (and if that means truncating or rethinking the dissertation, then more’s the better), do a better job of routing Ph.D.'s to quality jobs outside the tenure track, and embrace digital scholarship.

And that’s where the fun begins: Nobody argues with the whole humanities-in-crisis thing, but everyone has their own take on what’s to be done about it. Here’s a quick tour of the topics drawing the most debate.

1. “Wait a second, who’s this task force, anyway?”

Rebecca Schuman:
The Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature was compiled by sending seven tenured professors (over half of whom hold some sort of fancy endowed title) and one “alt-ac” museum executive to talk to “directors of graduate studies, department chairs, and other adminis­trators; graduate students; employers outside the academy; and the membership at large.” The first thing to note about the Task Force’s methodology is that the group largely avoided talking to the very people most affected by the abject cratering in humanities jobs in the past decade: adjuncts.

“Minnesotan,” commenting at The Chronicle:
What does a Stanford professor know about the economic or political realities of adjunct labor and grad students who feel they have no prospects? Put some people in the trenches in charge and you'll see some more thoughtful suggestions based on lived circumstances, not disconnected aristoprofs who got their jobs not by going on this overwhelmingly broken job market, but by way of a letter of introduction from their advisor in 1962.

Karen Kelsky:
Seriously? WTF? Send a bunch of endowed full profs out to investigate a “crisis” from which they've been basically immune? Would you accept such shoddy methodology from your Ph.D. students?

Rob Townsend:

2. “The big issue here is jobs—or is it?”

From the MLA Report (page 5):
As highly educated professionals, recipients of the Ph.D. find employment; they are not typically part of the long-term unemployed. It has long been the case, however, that not all recipients of Ph.D.’s in modern languages and literatures find tenure- track positions, and the significant shrinking of the job market for tenure-track employment after 2008 has exacerbated this situation.

Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker:
The core of the problem is, of course, the job market. … In all likelihood, the number of jobs per candidate is much smaller than the report suggests. That’s why the mood is so dire—why even professors are starting to ask, in the committee’s words, “Why maintain doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures—or the rest of the humanities—at all?”

Paige Morgan:
The state of the academic job market affects confidence, too, as the Task Force clearly recognizes when it urges faculty to support graduate students who are exploring alternate career paths. But I am suspicious of the suggestion that the academic job market is the primary depressor of confidence that is making it difficult graduate students to write their dissertations, or that factors relating to the job market are the primary opportunity for intervention.

3. “Actually, the big issue is academic labor.”

From the MLA Report (page 6):
Our point is that the precarious economic circumstances of the large and increasing share of postsecondary faculty members working in contingent positions threatens the viability of the entire enterprise of doctoral study, as doctoral students face the ongoing deterioration of prospects for employment as full-time tenure-track professors. It is therefore in the interest of our fields to advocate vigorously both more tenure-track positions and improved working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty members.

Bennett Carpenter, quoted in The Chronicle:
In focusing on tweaks and ‘innovations’ rather than on labor conditions, the MLA task force thus misses the point. Alt-ac will not save us. The digital humanities will not save us. Only a concerted effort to transform the labor conditions of higher education can resolve the current crisis."

Aimée Morrison:

Gerry Cannavan:

Russell Berman, chair of the MLA task force, quoted in The Chronicle:
The MLA has a long history of being "very outspoken in advocating for improved working conditions for adjuncts," Mr. Berman said. "The MLA has done that, continues to do that, and this report reaffirms that in the context of discussing restructuring of doctoral programs."

4. “So if academic labor is a mess, what about other career options?“

From the MLA Report (page 12):
The profession must make a strong case to the public at large and especially to prospective employers that our doctoral programs prepare students for career paths throughout society, not only in higher education.

Rebecca Schuman:
WHAT THE @#$% IS THE POINT OF GETTING A DOCTORATE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE A PROFESSOR? The idea of getting a doctorate with the sole or primary purpose of going “alt-ac” is bananas. Do you think that museums and nonprofits and archives are all crying themselves to sleep at night wondering where the unrelated humanities Ph.D.’s are to fill the reams and reams of open positions they have?

Gerry Cannavan:

Benjamin Winterhalter, The Atlantic:
Isn’t it exactly this sort of hyper-competitive anti-logic that created the crisis of the humanities in the first place? Insistent warnings about the need for practicality—for sacrifices in the name of the job market—have filled students with a fearsome anxiety about their financial futures. Are you going to try and pay your electric bill with music, Susan?

5. “What does it mean to rethink the dissertation?”

From the MLA Report (page 14):
Departments should expand the spectrum of forms the dissertation may take. … Today alternative modes of scholarly communication challenge the priority of the dissertation as proto–print book; multimodal platforms for e-books are being developed that incorporate still images, audio, and moving images as well as interactive features and text.

Roger Whitson:
I think we are leaving out quite a bit if we, as a discipline, point to something unusual and say “that’s not English.” And I, for one, would rather let go of an archaic disciplinary apparatus that forced its researchers and students to stick with papers and books while indenturing them to years of underpaid labor, than see it preserved under any kind of revisionist historical fantasy. We need the MLA report because too many people assume they know better than researchers who are trying to do something exciting in this discipline.

“Eileen” at How Did We Get Into This Mess?
Regarding the dissertation, I think even for people aimed at the tenure track, something has to change. At least for history, the changes from dissertation to book that publishers demand are such that it doesn't make sense to me that a dissertation should be a 300-page near-monograph that has to be hacked into a book by tenure time or else—why not a much shorter, more intensive archival project, or something else that could be a foundation to a larger project?

James Pulizzi, The New Republic:
Among the suggestions was a plea for graduate students to learn more technical skills, such as text mining, data visualization, and other very non-humanistic sounding software tools. … But even while recommending that shift, they left in place the dissertation, or the production of a large research-based, book-length monograph. Alternative projects, especially collaborative ones, will likely never pass muster in the humanities as qualifying a graduate student for a Ph.D. And so, the legacy of print is questioned but remains largely untouched.

6. “Should time to degree really be shorter?”

From the MLA Report (page 15):
Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years from entry into a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree attained.

“Eris” at How Did We Get Into This Mess?
I would have loved to finish in five years, but I was a first-gen college student, single mother of two, and I was working on a very interdisciplinary topic, so six was the best I could do. I think grad school is an important time to learn how to be an academic, but it's not a real job and it's not the real world. I see little reason to spend more time than I did there.

Rebecca Schuman:
Ph.D.s being cranked out at a faster rate ... means MOAR PHDS, which is exactly 100% of the opposite of what any of us want or need, with the exception of faculty in Ph.D. programs, who want to preserve “accessibility” and “excellence.”

Paige Morgan:
Throughout the report, the phrase “departments should” appears 22 times… . My concern is with the framing of departments (which I read as “faculty”) acting to make these changes and graduate students reacting by finishing their degrees within five years. Implicitly, the changes come from the faculty and are directed at the graduate students.

The solution to this problem of framing is, in some ways, simple: faculty (and their departments) need to be engaging in open dialogue with their graduate students about the dissertation format and about the factors that are contributing to the length of time-to-degree. Let me phrase that more bluntly: departments need to listen to graduate students.

7. “What if we’re just giving out too many Ph.D.’s in the first place?”

From the MLA Report (page 18):
Departments should develop admissions practices and policies appropriate to the changing character of doctoral education and the broadened range of career opportunities.

Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker:
Only briefly does the report address what, to many people, is the most obvious solution: reducing admissions. … Professors in the humanities work hard to communicate the allure of their subjects; they are so good at it that, unless they bar the doors to graduate school, students will keep streaming in. And yet barring the doors is exactly what professors are least equipped to do. They’re also under the spell; that’s why they’re such good teachers. They love their subjects, and their students; they can’t accept that, by teaching too many students, they may be harming them. If that is the case, then to really respond to the crisis, they will have to do something unthinkable: turn good students away.

“Procrustes,” commenting at The Chronicle:
It is hardly surprising that the MLA, AHA, and faculty in doctoral programs argue against shrinking programs. Cui bono? Doctoral training is focused professional training for research in the discipline. All the alternative careers cited can be had with a master's degree that offers more appropriate training for them.

Werner Twertzog:

Russell Berman, chair of the MLA task force, quoted in The Chronicle:
The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong. What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths.

Announcing Vitae's New Discussion Groups!

Want to swap strategies and share insights with other academics?

Sign up for Vitae and join the conversation in one of our new discussion groups: Adjunct Life, Flexible Academics, On Scholarly Writing, or Advising in Academia.

Join Vitae Signing up is fast, easy, and free.

Join the Conversation

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.
  • The "over supply" of (unqualified) PhDs has diluted the meaning
    of advanced degrees and lessened their value in the job market.
    More over, it is a disservice to permit graduate students to keep "banging away
    at a dissertation" for five years or longer when it is usually abundantly clear which students are truly capable of doing innovative research by the time they have obtained
    a Master's degree (usually within two years of being admitted to a graduate program).

    When I attended graduate school in the 1970s, my first year class had eight students.
    After two years, one student failed the qualifying exam and left; two others were
    encouraged to finish "terminal" Master's degree and leave. The remaining five students
    all completed PhDs but in a time frame ranging from four to six more years beyond the
    Master's degree. Only one obtained a permanent faculty position (after returning to
    Canada), even after completing several postdoctoral fellowships and holding one year
    visiting assistant professorships. All of these students were male and the majority are

    Mark Slovak
    Mark Slovak
  • I LOVE the "aristoprofs" term. Brilliant. This is such a problem: important reports being written by them. On the one hand, it's great that "elite" professors are taking up the cause of reform and coming up with new ideas and talking with (some of) those affected, instead of not doing much of anything. Academics conduct research and write up their results, so doing this all makes good sense. On the other hand, the insider's perspective can only take us so far, especially if the insiders are uber-insiders. This is nothing against these reports in general. What would be great is if funding could be gathered up somehow to pay outsiders, or at least outsider/insiders, to do these big reports. But that's already happening, at least here in Canada. I dunno.

    The report is confusing, as Rebecca's pointed out in a few of her blog posts. But I disagree with her on one point: I didn't do a PhD to become a professor. I was 24 when I started, I loved-loved-loved doing my 2-year master's degree complete with thesis, and was excited to start my PhD. And I wasn't thinking AT ALL (unless I'm misremembering) about what would come next. I'm not very future-oriented. Apparently some people are (and this still surprises me), but I was focused on doing my dissertation. I was thrilled to continue my research and writing about "my guys," and my department and external funders supported me doing so. I'd wished the culture within my department had been different. If it had been, I might have had a much easier time figuring out my working life after my PhD. But I see no reason to assume doing a PhD is "training." I never fully embraced that mentality. I now prefer to frame a PhD as a job. That way, what comes next doesn't have to be failure and the process need not be seen as a waste.

    Jennifer Polk
    Jennifer Polk
  • @Jennifer Polk:

    As someone who shares your general dispositions (re: planning) and much of your experience I'll just say:

    You can frame it however you like, but that won't help you to pay the bills once the job is over (or, as in my case, when you have to finish 'the job' even after they've stopped paying you for it). I hope you're able to make a smooth transition into the next stage (whether that's an academic job or another career) so that you won't have to worry about where the next job is coming from. But even if you are, many others won't be so lucky.

    Derek Bowman
    Derek Bowman
  • I am not quite sure what @WernerTwertzog's point was. Is he being sarcastic, or does he sincerely think that his analogy is correctly positioned? It is ironic--whether or not he intends that.

    There should be "passenger limits" on the ferry because the ferry can only hold so many people--if people are allowed on, willy nilly, when there is no room for them, then some wind up being pushed off when the ferry begins to sink. Similarly, since there is no room in academia for the many thousands of PhD recipients--there is no need to add more people to the ferry. The majority will just drown.

    It was poor methodology (though completely in keeping with the reason that we have such issues in the profession) to ignore those people who have become the equivalent of "just in time" Walmart workers with no benefits, no living wage, and no ability to get other jobs (an alt ac job is for the young and pretty--people who would get jobs simply by virtue of their social skills and personal attractiveness--not for those who grew old and grey in their studies). As a person who has applied for clerical jobs repeatedly, only to be passed over for high school graduates because I am "over-educated," I assure you that adjuncts are drowning--and the aristoprofs do not care enough even to include us as part of the study population.


    I suppose that if researchers don't concern themselves with the people in water (or the deceased drifting by), but only look at those boarding the ferry and those few who make it to the other side, it is easier to become convinced that the ferry can carry everyone who wants to get on.

    Amy Bollman
    Amy Bollman
  • So many questions and criticisms about this report. I keep wondering about what the effects on undergraduate teaching will be. If graduate faculty are working so much more with graduate students, will more (adjunct) faculty be needed to cover undergraduate courses?

    If so, what (if anything) will MLA do in response? What can they do?

    If, for example, programs follow the report’s guidelines and--as a consequence--hire a bunch of adjuncts to cover undergraduate teaching, will MLA cite its earlier statement on contingent labor and censure the offending program? (Forgive me if I’m not optimistic about this.)

    Joe Fruscione
    Joe Fruscione
  • Derek: Yes! Of course. I am not suggesting that any of this is easy, nor do I mean to imply that very real, serious feelings can be ignored or dismissed by a simply reframing.

    I don't think anyone makes a smooth transition from PhD to whatever comes next. These things are very hard, in multiple ways. My own process involved many things, including coming to reframe my experience in a way that helped me move forward. Timing is important. I could write books on everything I and others go through.

    Jennifer Polk
    Jennifer Polk
  • I believe the underlying problem with the direction of PhDs and the careers they uphold is a property of the institution inviting the graduate students in the first place. I don't care if I solicit outside funding from the DFG and write all of my research reports in German if my supporting institution cannot afford to finance my basic support as a scholar in the academic universe!

    Dr. Thembi Elizabeth Maria Lillia Scott, MD-PhD-LLD
    Dr. Thembi Elizabeth Maria Lillia Scott, MD-PhD-LLD
  • The "aristoprofs" theory makes no sense. Fully half the task force members do NOT hold professorships at elite institutions. Of the eight task force members, one just recently left her position as associate director for Programs at Howard University's Ralph Bunche International Affairs Center, where she is a doctoral student in the African Studies Department, to work at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Another teaches at a community college. A third teaches in the language program at East Carolina Univ. A fourth is the director of digital research and scholarship at the library at UVA. The remaining four professors have been elected by the MLA membership to serve as presidents or Executive Council members.

    Rosemary G. Feal
    Executive Director

    Rosemary Feal
    Rosemary Feal
  • So let me take back the first chunk of my first comment! Thanks Rosemary. I didn't fact check that. My apologies.

    Jennifer Polk
    Jennifer Polk
  • Rosemary, thank you for correcting misinformation about the task force make-up (item #1, above). It has been frustrating to see it repeated uncritically -- often nastily ad hominem -- and in a way that seems designed to feed the outrage machine and derail more substantive discussion of the report. In addition to all the thoughtful input the task force received from MLA members (focus groups of DGSes and department chairs; convention attendees, including jobseekers, alt-ac folks, and faculty at all ranks; elected representatives of grad student groups, etc.) and from outside research and data collection, I found the mix of perspectives on the task force itself very helpful in formulating our recommendations. As you point out, we had people elected by MLA's membership (past presidents and executive councilors -- folks who have been around the block!) and language and literature faculty (the target audience for the report), but we also had a grad school dean, a PhD student/adjunct/alt-ac employee with recent experience on the market, a community college instructor who works summers in a national park, a language program director, and me, a non-tenure-track librarian on 3-year contracts. Obviously, we couldn't cover all the bases, but it was remarkable how quickly such a diverse group came to a shared commitment to imagining a non-exploitative, more expansive PhD in service to students, not faculty, and with a promise of greater public impact for the humanities. I do appreciate the thoughtful engagement of the report I've seen in several quarters, but will be most interested not in what career consultants, Vitae writers, anonymous Twitterers, and higher ed journalists have to say, but in whether it does its job when faculty resume department meetings in the fall. Will the report lead to useful conversations there? Obviously (or maybe not obviously, given some of the critique) what faculty leaders, department chairs, and DGSes do & do not have the power to change is key to understanding what we do & don't say in the report. But I think it's also fair to say they have a lot more power and responsibility for reform than some of them are exercising. It would be great to see the energy expended recently in railing at the MLA turned, instead, toward sussing out what's useful (positive or negative!) at the local level in the report, and engaging departmental commmunities of grad students, faculty colleagues, administrators, recent PhDs, and longer-term alumni in conversation. It may be impossible to do that productively as, say, a clickbait for-profit career coach -- but I hope that anyone in that little litany of roles I've mentioned feels empowered or provoked by the report to open up local conversations. That's what it was meant to do. (And I'll add, too, for people who would like to see a more "activist agenda" from the MLA -- I don't know of an academic professional organization out there more committed to creating *platforms* for its members to do just that. Besides working through your committees on contingent labor, academic freedom and professional rights & responsibilities, the status of grad students in the profession, etc., MLA Commons would be a terrific place for members at large to organize around these or alternate visions.) Anyway, here endeth the sermon. Thanks again.

    Bethany Nowviskie
    Bethany Nowviskie
  • You're missing an important one under #6. Canadian programs are generally designed to be completed within five years from undergrad: MAs are generally standalones that take one year (a handful are two years); PhDs are four years. Our graduate programs are generally much smaller--maybe 3-5 in the country are over 15 students/year. Canada is still seeing the same sharp shift from tenured faculty to adjunct and graduate-student labor. The Canadian example suggests that the MLA "solution" of five-year programs is no solution, and neither is smaller PhD cohorts.

    Here's what made the Canadian situation worse a few years ago: the end of mandatory retirement at 65. One of the fundamental problems on both sides of the border is the number of full professors, earning 2-3x that of an assistant professor, who aren't retiring. Many aren't retiring for very good reasons: they don't think they'll be replaced and so their departments will suffer; their retirement plan is insufficient; they're so committed to the work that they can't imagine not doing it. But if tenure were ended at 65 or 70--pick a number, any number--we could significantly ameliorate the academic jobs crisis.

    I'm not just talking about the math here: free up one senior salary and clear room in the budget for two junior salaries. I'm also pointing to the implications of just ending *tenure*. Full professors--including ex-Chairs, ex-Deans, and even ex-VPs, who pal around with current Chairs, Deans, and VPs--who wanted to teach past 65 or 70 would have to do so under adjunct conditions. That, I suspect, would finally lead to some real advances in the treatment of adjuncts.

    Julia M. Wright
    Julia M. Wright
  • Silos Hamper Change to Doc Education: Silos Alive in MLA Doctoral Study Report and Scholarship of Doctoral Studies  http://bit.ly/1eZQE2U

    I wrote about the MLA Doctoral Study Report in this blog post.  I promote ongoing renewal of doctoral programs through my blog, on Twitter and to doctoral education providers and consumers.

    Many serious problems exist within doctoral programs that are known by those who study doctoral education but fail to reach groups like the MLA.  Let's bring doctoral programs into the 21st century by encouraging more transparency, data keeping and ongoing renewal.

    Sheri Oberman
    Sheri Oberman
  • Julia M. Wright has a point. Although mandatory retirement was abolished partly because of concerns about ageism (discrimination on the basis of age), and professors have reasons for not retiring (which Julia outlines well), I know of one professor and former department chair who retired and came back to teach as an adjunct in his department. I am not sure how well that improved the situation for adjuncts, but I have not heard many complaints about adjuncting at that university from my friends and colleagues who have done so. I think earlier retirement, and pressure to create tenure-track jobs to replace these retired professors is critical. Yet, how do we ensure that they will actually be replaced by tt people? That is the hard part. We also have the problem of graduate supervision - if we keep taking in more PhDs, but professors are already overworked, students (like me) end up with supervisors completely unqualified to supervise our projects. If professors retire and adjuncts take over their courses then there are even fewer professors available to supervise. In that event attrition rates, and transfers, rise.

    Stephanie Butler
    Stephanie Butler
  • Also, in that event, departments may have to reduce admissions, which impacts their government alloted funding (the funding Canadian Universities get from the government per student and their Tri-Council funding quotas). Otherewise, they pass off horribly inappropriate committee arrangements which prematurely edge out promising students from any hope of academic employment of any kind simply because they failed to warn students that changing projects would mean no adequate supervision due to a lack of resources in the department. The MLA has come down strongly in opposition to make-shift shoddy arrangements, stating that departments have a responsibility to ensure students receive appropriate academic and career training support in terms of both academic resources and career skills training. How, then, could they manage not to lose funding and prestige without damning their students?

    Stephanie Butler
    Stephanie Butler